The Energy Moving Through the Air: An Interview with Calexico’s Joey Burns
In a business that is dominated by both the hyper-commodification of artistry and the lazy emphasis on marketing and artifice rather than imagination and creativity, Calexico’s “just play” approach is like the whisper of another era.
Calexico, formed in the mid-1990s in Tucson, Arizona by multi-instrumentalists John Convertino and Joey Burns, has quietly become this generation’s answer to the Band. As both an extraordinary backing outfit for artists like Neko Case, Willie Nelson, and Iron & Wine, and as a tireless touring and recording act in their own right, Calexico is simply all about music. Indeed, they are pretty tough to keep up with. Including their so-called Tour EPs (which are often as long and rewarding as any official record, but are only sold at their concerts or on their website), they have released some 15 albums since 1998. If we add in the records on which they’ve been collaborators, sidemen, or the principal backing band, the number edges closer to 25. Few artists in recent memory have achieved an output that comes close to that amount. But ask Joey Burns about this prolific harvest, and you see rather quickly that this is but a taste of what they have in store. In a business that is dominated by both the hyper-commodification of artistry and the lazy emphasis on marketing and artifice rather than imagination and creativity, Calexico’s “just play” approach is like the whisper of another era.
Since their beginnings as a spookily austere drums and guitar duo, Burns and Convertino have steadily pushed at any apparent boundaries, growing both the band (the addition of Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk’s mariachi-style horns gave a new, distinctively Southwestern texture to their sound), and their audience with each new record. By the autumn of 2008, when they released their sixth official album (the gorgeous, meditative Carried to Dust), Calexico will be approaching their ten-year anniversary as a six-piece band.
Speaking to Burns on the telephone, it struck me just how committed, how excited, and how profoundly focused he is. He took my call while in the studio, stepping outside into a desert afternoon to stand by the train tracks and chat offhandedly about music, about art, and about his place in all of it. An extraordinarily intelligent and articulate man, Burns (to borrow Cameron Crowe’s lovely description of Joni Mitchell) speaks like a writer’s third draft. His answers to difficult questions are spontaneous, immediate, and yet utterly precise. The man knows what he is doing, and why. He and his bandmates share a vision, and know what it takes to achieve it. Without the slightest suspicion of arrogance, Burns projects an air of passionate creativity and utter self-confidence. He’s an artist, don’t you know.
Calexico is routinely described by critics with words like dusty, cinematic, dreamy, landscape. There is, it seems, a poetry of space and place in your work that is inescapable. It’s even in your name. And this new record feels like a travelogue of sorts, a kind of sweep across the Southwest. Is this what Carried to Dust), means?
Man, I’ll tell you... John [Convertino] just came in today, talking about what the name means. There are so many interpretations. I think, originally, it harkened to the kind of feeling one gets when reading John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust. Or something. It’s an interesting book. It’s about an immigrant, maybe first or second generation, who comes to make it big as a writer in L.A. He falls in love with a Mexican-American woman, a waitress, but he can’t seem to get it right. He keeps dropping the ball and she winds up leaving town with another writer. It’s about losing the ability to hold onto things, and to relate to the important things in our lives.
But, a lot of Calexico records have that presence of space, and of nature. Of course, I’m just outside my studio here in Tucson, and I can’t see any tall buildings. The desert... the sky seems so expansive. It’s larger here. It has a positive effect, that openness. Yet, it’s very extreme out here, too. It’s very difficult to make your way. You know, people start to go crazy a bit. There’s something about that contrast that I like.
On one level Carried to Dust) is about that novel, paying homage to the work. And on another level it alludes to the paths we must take, the choices we face. But, there’s also the fatalistic “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” aspect, too. And, it’s also about electricity. Carried by dust is a metaphor for the energy moving through the air.
There is something that is very dark in our music. I like that. It’s a more realistic approach to life, I guess. I don’t know why we embrace that melancholy, that moodiness. Is it the desert? A lot of people hear the trumpets and think: “Oh, that’s the band. They’re from the border and so they sound like this.” But there’s a lot of diverse styles, sounds, and moods that we chase. It stems from the Southwest, but doesn’t necessarily rely on the Southwest.
The motif of travel, of movement, is everywhere in your work. As much as space, movement seems to underwrite what you do. I think of great road songs -- "Amelia" or "Coyote" by Joni Mitchell, "Albuquerque" by Neil Young, "White Lines" by Willie P. Bennett -- and each of them hints at escape, a need for distance and self-discovery. What is the road to Calexico?
Well, traveling is a big part of our life. In and out of cities. They become this kind of portal. It’s perspective -- getting away from the city and getting a chance to digest in that bubble that is being in a car or an airplane. You get to consider what just happened to you. You might have seen an old friend, learned something new... The road offers up, I guess, the future. There’s this positive aspect to it -- you’re constantly moving away from, and towards, somewhere.
For a band like us who has so many different styles and backgrounds, the road is important. We might be in Germany, and everyone around us is speaking German, and not just [German band mates] Martin [Wenk] and Volker [Zander]. Or, maybe we’re in Spain, same thing, except now we’re looking to Jacob [Valenzuela] for insights, maybe. I love that people of different backgrounds make up our band. The road highlights these aspects, and shows how bizarre we really are.
I also love to be surrounded by strangers while I’m on the road. It might get unexpectedly personal. You might find a weird connection. And, above all, the road allows you to see those patterns, to see the ways things aren’t so different all over. On the road, it’s about realizing that it isn’t as different as I imagined. By the way, Senator Barack Obama went to Europe and the Middle East a couple months ago, remember? He was criticized for it, but it takes such maturity to find the time to go away from home, I think. From where I’m coming from, I was so happy to see that he made the time to go overseas and meet people. Even if he doesn’t win the presidency, he is at least making the effort to talk to the world, to see the world.
Back in the 1980s, Sam Sheppard and Bob Dylan famously used the desert as a site of unreality, of escapism and fantasy -- I’m thinking about songs like "Brownsville Girl", or Sheppard’s film Paris, Texas. They seemed to be playing off the way Hollywood Westerns have always been, at least in part, about this longing for an authentic, pre-modern, idealized America. A place unencumbered by modernity and all of its urban noise. If space and place are so important to you, how do you approach the city/rural divide? What is the city for Calexico?
For me, the large population centres are important. That’s where the stories collide and bounce off each other. The city represents barrios, where immigrants come and make their own versions of city life. You see it in all cities. Barrios, the other side of the tracks, you know. Cities are the meeting places. Some cities dry up and become ghost towns, and others become metropolises upon metropolises upon metropolises, until they become more region than city. Sometimes they’re decaying, cancerous even, but there’s always this electricity there. It’s important for a band like us. And, there is a modernity to our music, too. We’re not so steeped in tradition that we’re just about roots. We have one foot in either vein. I don’t think we’re trying to keep strict rules, either. We listen to all types of music from different genres, different eras, different regions. The last track on this new record [Contention City] is in keeping with electronic music, I think. But, we’re using acoustic, or electric-acoustic, instruments.
Garden Ruin (2006) was frequently maligned by critics and fans alike as being too big, somehow, too pop, or at least, not Calexico-y enough. I happened to like the record a great deal, and was moved by the obvious political frustration evident on "All Systems Red", for example. More than once I’ve found myself defending the record from folks who seem to want you guys to sound like you did on The Black Light forever. What’s your assessment of all of this?
It sounds so often like people are turning into the corporations they say they hate. But, what can you do? We gave ourselves a green light to change it up on Garden Ruin. It was also mixed by a different guy for the first time. So, maybe if it had been mixed by Craig Schumacher, who did the other records, it would have ... The feeling we had in the band was that what was going on around us, both at home and abroad, it was all so frustrating. There was a feeling that we wanted to give a more straightforward version of what we do to the public. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time. We have to follow our instincts, and we’re just not going to fall into cookie cutters. The same reason I like artists like Neil Young and Dylan is that they’re going to change, they’re going to do stuff differently, switch it up. They’re not machines. Who wants to play into the hands of expectation or that kind of empty success? This stuff means too much to me to do that! There’s a lot more at stake, for us, in this. I’m eternally grateful for all the things we’ve been able to do. I couldn’t have hoped for more of a blessing. But we have to do what we have to do. You can’t deny what an artist does. You can dislike it, of course, but you can’t dismiss it.
It really is, when you’re standing here as I am, right next to the train tracks in the desert, you realize that, wow, we’re really way the fuck out there, away from the people, you know? But, they’re there, listening. I’m talking to you in Toronto!
Still, last time you played Toronto, just last month, you did only one song from Garden Ruin. Coincidence?
Huh, yeah, we only played "Roka". Sometimes, you know, you react. We were like, well, then let’s not play them for awhile. It’s true. We kind of backed away from the material a bit. The way I feel now is: I would like to have the band forget about the songs, forget how to play them, even. And then, in a couple years, we’ll reintroduce them again, to get them up and over the way that they were played for Garden Ruin, to re-articulate them. But, still, maybe someone hears [Garden Ruin’s most immediately accessible track] "Bisbee Blue" today, or tomorrow, and it just works for them. So...
A structural question. Your work in Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic I’m Not There found you playing the role of backing band to a variety of artists, including Willie Nelson and Roger McGunin. But, this is nothing new for you guys: you have regularly been the backing band for solo artists -- from Victoria Williams to Neko Case, and from Nancy Sinatra to your recent work with fledgling Tucson chanteuse Marianne Dissard. In each case, the artist took on Calexico’s sound (and, not coincidentally, advanced their work). So, here’s the question: is Calexico a backing band, or do artists play for Calexico?
From my perspective, we’re doing all those things. Both. At times, we work as a two-piece, just John and I. Right now, we’re doing some soundtrack work and… We do it all, I guess. Collaborating with some musicians, working on our own. I see it as an all-encompassing thing. We’re not just one band. We do all these projects that fit under the name of Calexico. We encompass all those worlds, and it keeps everything interesting for us. Marianne’s record should be out in the Fall.
John Convertino is one of the two or three most distinctive drummers in popular music today. Do you write with his brush-work in mind? What does John’s drumming bring to the table for you as a songwriter?
He brings everything to the table! He brings the pasta, the bread, the wine, the seriousness, the lightness, the focus, the energy. I knew early on. He has always stood out. He’s got that signature sound, pulling from so many different places but making it his own. He makes it fluid, leaving room for phrasing and nuance in our work. He builds like, like a maestro, bringing us up and down. It’s phenomenal! Probably the most frequently commented upon aspect of our show is that: Wow, your drummer is amazing.
And, John’s also so grounded, and such a joy to hang out with. He’s a great friend. I mean, we have a similar work ethic, but it’s joy that keeps us together. You asked me how important is his role? It’s crucial. It wouldn’t be called Calexico if John weren’t there. I’d still make music, but it wouldn’t be Calexico.
In Calexico, we don’t rehearse. We just go in there and make shit up much of the time. Without him, I don’t know. We’re all constantly pulling in different directions, but we all listen to John. He has great instincts. If he has something to say, it’s spot on.
And, I have to say one more thing about John. He has got great tone. He gets these wire brushes and then gets rubber bands and wraps them around the base, where the wire meets the wood. He has this whole ritual for this thing! He puts the rubber band at the base and then splays the edges of the bunch of wires. (They’re always white, coated Ambassador heads, too.) He does all this so he’s able to get that soft, percussive brush stroke, but he can still hit hard and get that big dynamic pulse. From time to time the rubber bands fly off and hit you in the head, but that’s all part of it. I love it. He’s just got that working class fix-it ingenuity. You give him something, and he makes it better.
The band has grown and solidified since Feast of Wire. You are now sharing vocals (a bit), and generally widening out the sound. What does working with a full band mean for your songwriting? Do you write for the band, or still principally for you and John?
Both. I’ve always got one shoe on the left and one shoe on the other left. On Garden Ruin, we had the whole band in the studio from the start. We were like: times are tough, economically, and we need to streamline a bit! Typically, though, John and I go into the studio and bang around some ideas before giving them to the band. As far as process goes, John is always for less overdubs, and I’m always for more. Inherently, there is so much room in the arrangements, so much space, I try to make it so that there’s less editing later, but…
The band started as John and I, but, this is the tenth anniversary for everyone else in the band. Everyone except Jacob [Venezuela] who joined around 2000. We’ve been through so many miles together in this band. There’s going to be some big party in the fall to celebrate! And, we’re one of those bands that has evolved through a lot of touring. We learned that onstage language, that communication, and it can almost feel like telepathy. You see how that sparks something new. On something like "Sonic Wind", if it’s a good night, and it’s a good room, that song can just transcend anything we’ve ever done before. We aim for that, for the newness. We want to tap into something that’s universal. That’s the band.